Wheeldon: Winter’s Tale, ENB: Lest They Forget, BRB: Pagodas

Choreography may be the most difficult of all performing-art forms. The dance-lover is all too aware that the standard theatre or opera repertoires contain thousands of works. Dance, by contrast, has a repertoire that numbers only in the hundreds, and most companies commonly draw on only dozens of works.

For England’s three largest ballet companies to produce new pieces within months of each other, therefore, is unusual. That the works come from four of the most artistically acclaimed choreographers is exciting. That all four men (as usual, they are once again all men) have produced top-quality work is cause for celebration, and more than a little relief.

Christopher Wheeldon has seemed to be artistically stalled for some time. The abstract one-act pieces with which he first made his name two decades ago have become increasingly difficult to differentiate. His first narrative piece, Alice in Wonderland, for the Royal Ballet in 2011, fell between stools, insufficiently dramatic, and also without much choreographic invention. Three years on, however, it appears that Wheeldon has suddenly, with brio, taken a huge artistic step forward.

With the same creative team as Alice (design by Bob Crowley, music composed by Joby Talbot, lighting by Natasha Katz), Wheeldon has taken The Winter’s Tale, a story apparently as intractably word-based as Alice, and dazzlingly rendered it into movement as shape-shifting and ambiguous as Shakespeare’s original. Here the dance-language is as firmly divided as Shakespeare’s division of Sicily and Bohemia, Sicily being expressionism; Bohemia, classical joy. Leontes (the first cast’s Edward Watson, doing his Mayerling / Metamorphosis routine once too often, was surpassed by the second evening’s Bennet Gartside, in a more nuanced performance) is a creature of writhing, crawling jealousy; Paulina (the astonishing Zenaida Yanowsky in the role of her career, deftly stealing every scene in which she appears) is the rigorously upright moral centre, her duty to her queen and the truth overriding her anguish at the deceit they require. Then Wheeldon places the forthright movement of Antigonus (Bennet Gartside) to bridge the gap between this world of intense emotionality, and Bohemia’s simpler pastoral, where Florizel (Steven McRae) and Perdita (Sarah Lamb’s more contained first cast performance again surpassed by Beatriz Stix-Brunell’s charmingly seductive second night) frolic winsomely together with a lovely pair of shepherds. (The “bear” that pursues Antigonus is ingeniously incorporated into a giant wave in the storm that strands the pair on Bohemia’s shores, although on first viewing it appeared only to be visible from some parts of the house.)

Wheeldon’s choreographic division is marked well by Crowley: the Sicilian court, apart from a Caspar David Friedrich blow-up to reference Romantic angst, is white and cold, what the Renaissance would have looked like if only the Medici had had the nous to hire John Pawson; the supersaturated colours of Bohemia produce the second act’s coup de théâtre, a lushly green tree, all soaring branches and spreading roots, taking over the entire back of the stage (and summoning the audience’s first unmediated applause of the evening). The return to Sicily, then, is all the more poignant as we leave the light and sun behind, via a dramatic boat chase cunningly created by Crowley, to Paulina’s recognition of Perdita (through an emerald pendant rather than a “fardel”), which may be one of the most dramatically moving moments of narrative dance since Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling.

This is not to say the piece is perfect: Wheeldon has difficulty bringing a scene to a dramatic close, and most fade away in a whimper; the balance between dance and exposition is uneven, Act I being overloaded with plot, Act II with pure dance; and there are several longueurs where earlier scenes are recapitulated dramatically or choreographically, and could effectively be cut (it’s a long evening). Joby Talbot’s score, on a single hearing, appears undistinguished and lacks the textures Wheeldon and Crowley find.

The real problem, however, is dance’s automatic acceptance of magic, which means Shakespeare’s dramatic climax, Hermione stepping down from her plinth, has little emotional impact. In an art-form jam-packed with vision scenes, this is just one more. While the first night’s Hermione, Lauren Cuthbertson, played the scene straight, the second cast’s Marianela Núñez was more profound, performing the same steps, but making clear the ambivalence of Shakespeare’s “reconciliation”, as Gartside’s Leontes, too, understood that second chances are not always what they appear.

Reality is also a starting point for English National Ballet’s contribution to the First World War centenary. In a mixed bill, Liam Scarlett has produced, to Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a meditation on the machinery of war. No Man’s Land is set in a derelict munitions factory. A zigzag ramp among the shattered windows and abandoned work surfaces creates a point of entry that echoes the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadère, that nineteenth-century vision of predestined death. Scarlett’s choreography frequently allows the men and women to dance side by side, equals, instead of the more fashionable partnering style where the men fold and manipulate their women, and is delicately lovely and dramatically potent at one and the same time.

There is no delicacy in the programme’s closer, Akram Khan’s new piece, Dust, a shriek of rage of horror. Dust is awkwardly shaped, ostensibly unfinished and apparently clumsy – and may be one of the best new works to have been created in decades, a work of traumatic, epic power. Beginning in silence, a single anguished figure (Khan himself) writhes and twists across the floor, while the corps, drawn up in a line, gathers ever closer until – bang – they clap, and clouds of dust arise, brilliantly lit by Fabiana Piccioli. Only then does Jocelyn Pook’s evocative vocal score begin, as the line of dancers link arms to create a wave, a machine, a piston – a beautiful, and fantastically eerie moment. As the men move back to the trench behind them, heading up and over, the women are left behind in a percussive dance, both fierce and mourning.

Tamara Rojo, the company’s director, leads the women, and she scythes through space like a blade. David Bintley, in his new version of The Prince of the Pagodas, initially created for the National Ballet of Japan in 2011, and now brought to his home company, also creates strong women. Here is no sleeping princess, waiting passively for her prince. Bintley’s Princess (the lovely Momoko Hirata), deprived of her rights by her evil stepmother (Elisha Willis, enjoying the licence to chew the scenery) takes herself off to find the Salamander Prince (Joseph Caley) she has dreamed of, before together they fight their enemies to set the kingdom to rights.

The evening is full of splendid moments: Rae Smith’s gorgeous sets, half shimmering homage to Yukio Ninagawa, half in-joke Gilbert and Sullivan; Bintley’s tightly woven filigrees of choreography, not merely for his principals, but also a sublime Act II opener for a corps of clouds scudding across the stage, as well as possibly the best dancing sea horses it has ever been my privilege to watch.

That the moments never cohere to an artistic whole is attributable to Benjamin Britten’s score, which shifts all too rapidly from sinuously beautiful to staidly stereotyped. Many choreographers have tried to harness this intermittently glorious score; all have failed. Bintley has, however, failed better than anyone else. A notable achievement.

TLS, 24 April 2014

Royal Ballet: Triple Bill

It is possible to see Gloria, Kenneth MacMillan’s howl of rage at the wanton waste of the First World War, as the final piece in a great arc of expressionist dance, from Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (1913), through Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces (1923), to Gloria (1980). The first two works portray a mythicized peasant life, where women are ritually sacrificed for the benefit of the community. The violence they depict, overt in Le Sacre, sublimated into ceremonial in Les Noces, is the violence of their century.

In Gloria, the communal violence is no longer beneficial, or ritualized, but mechanized, the slaughter of millions, so many that the living and the dead can no longer be separated. The vast armies of the dead walk (dance) as one, their numbers stretching away to the horizon. The score, Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, by turns lighthearted, sorrowful and resigned, lays down a palette from which MacMillan paints a vision of both hope and despair: a trio of men find companionship even as they dance with death, before the two main soldiers and their silvery companion – the angel of death? – join the nameless millions as they quietly line up to go over the top. The last soldier looks into the trench, into the pit, before he joins them, not quietly, but leaping, arms outstretched, crucified, the final sacrifice of humanity.

MacMillan achieved the highest aim, knitting the music, sets and costumes (of dusty, brutalized grandeur from Andy Klunder) and lighting (John B. Read) so tightly with his choreography that they form a single unity of vision, as Nijinska did with Natalia Goncharova and Stravinsky in Les Noces. (Nijinsky too may have done so, but the choreography of Le Sacre, despite attempts at restoration, remains unknowable.)

This collaborative vision is what Wayne McGregor too looks for, and for his new work, Tetractys –The Art of Fugue, he has elected to work with Bach (and Michael Berkeley), Tauba Auerbach for sets and costumes, and his regular lighting designer, Lucy Carter. The most enjoyable elements are Auerbach’s neon glyphs, which are raised and lowered over each segment of dance, a beautiful, playfully engaging schematization of the music. But they stand out, and stand alone, barely integrated into a whole.

Each work begins for McGregor with a single, usually theoretical, idea. Each is then mined for half an hour of dance, before being discarded as a new idea provokes the next work. It may be why it is hard to discern any development in McGregor’s work. We’ve had the form of atoms for Atomos, the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge and Richard Serra’s word lists for UNDANCE, virtual reality, PTSD and controlled explosions for Live Fire Exercise, and so on. For Tetractys, it is geometry and numerology, number theory and other games that Bach may, or may not, have been playing with in his mysterious Art of Fugue.

What it isn’t is a serious engagement with the music. The more standard piano and harpsichord arrangements of this work were apparently not considered, or not considered appropriate. Nor, apparently, was the lovely string quartet arrangement (which would also have linked to the four lines of the tetractys). Instead we have Michael Berkeley’s orchestral rendering of two canons and four fugal constructions: perfectly nice, but without much colour.

And in front of this the usual McGregor vocabulary of frantic scurrying, extreme distortion and hyper-extensions plays out, much as it has in all his previous works. A second viewing might have brought a deeper reading, but it was not to be. Dance can be an extreme sport, and in the matinee Natalia Osipova hit her head hard enough (against her partner, apparently) to sustain a concussion. Although she carried on to finish the performance, the evening show had to be cancelled. (That the Royal Ballet cannot field a second cast is astonishing, but in keeping with what appear to be financial constraints elsewhere; the piece’s muddy lighting suggests that onstage technical time was limited.)

The bill opened with Frederick Ashton’s final major work, Rhapsody, choreographed in 1980 for Mikhail Baryshnikov, full of glitter and dazzle, but an odd, unbalanced piece, the male principal’s style set entirely at odds with the rest of the dancers. The Royal has regularly revived the work, although its constant redesign of sets and costumes (originally William Chappell, then Patrick Caulfield, then Jessica Curtis) suggests a level of discomfort with it.

While Valentino Zucchetti debuted admirably, at the moment the Royal does not have a virtuoso of starriest star quality, someone who gobbles up space, who brutally demands attention. Steven McRae, more experienced, led the first cast, and young James Hay, a soloist, performed nicely in a matinee. But at the moment there is a dearth of dazzle in the Royal.

First published in the TLS

Royal Ballet, Jewels

It has been said that Mozart, so prodigiously talented so young, seemed to be merely a vessel through which God, or the music of the spheres, or whichever higher being one chooses, channelled the sounds of heaven. So, too, sometimes, does Balanchine appear to be a vessel through which music is channelled, to take solid form in front of our eyes. And never more so when the music in question is Tchaikovsky.

Jewels can be a tricky piece to get right. In less than 90 minutes, it covers 150 years of dance in three plotless acts: mid-19th century French Romanticism, via Fauré, for Emeralds; American syncopated 20th-century rhythms, courtesy of Stravinsky, for Rubies; and then, to end, the late-19th-century grand classicism of Petipa, to Tchaikovsky in Diamonds. For a single company to encompass this range is never easy.

Emeralds is almost a scent rather than a ballet, a drifting, ephemeral mood of past happiness. It floats gently by, and if you try, as a dancer, to make your mark on it, you have already stepped too heavily. Akane Takada in the pas de trois alone captured the style; Alexander Campbell danced well, although in a four-square Petipa presentation that would have been better left to Diamonds. Otherwise Emeralds was what it too often is, a sort of Presbyterian heaven, where everyone stands around looking refined, but boredom prevails.

Happily, once past that, as Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra sounded (played with good pace by Robert Clark, under Valery Ovsyanikov), one could feel the audience relax into enjoyment with Rubies. Sarah Lamb is probably at her best in Balanchine, and Steven McRae has syncopation in his bones. But the audience’s heart was, rightly, with Zenaida Yanowsky’s slick showgirl. On the outside she’s smooth and sophisticated, inside all bump-and-grind: fur coat and no knickers, as she picks up Stravinsky’s dirty little shimmies.

And then on to the grandeur that is Diamonds, Balanchine’s distillation of Tchaikovsky in dance (it is his Symphony no. 3 in D major, minus the first movement). So rich, so multi-faceted is this piece that some performances light on the references to Swan Lake, others to Sleeping Beauty. Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares shimmered glacially, and Nutcracker was never far from the surface (especially with the four excellent soloists – Yuhui Choe, Melissa Hamilton, Hikaru Kobayashi and Itziar Mendizabal – whose delicate precision deserves a review all of its own).

On some evenings Nuñez, with her rock solid technique, almost seems to find things too easy, and just skates along the surface. Not tonight. Her technique was no less rock solid – indeed, her balances were little short of astonishing – but it was her embodiment of the deeper grief that always underlies Tchaikovsky’s sweetness, his eternal yearning, that gave her performance not merely beauty, but weight. Soares too imbued his scant few moments (this is, emphatically, a ballet for women) with more than pyrotechnics: his fouettés, precise and admirable though they were, had also that despair that is never far from the surface in Tchaikovsky.

And throughout the movement Ovsyanikov drove the orchestra brilliantly, allowing the reeds and winds to predominate. The scherzo, with its pas de quatre of soloists, was haunting, its tragic waltz never quite overcome, even in the grand polonaise of the finale which Nuñez and Soares blazed through.

Don Q and Dracula, Royal Ballet and Mark Bruce Company



Double visions

Should anyone need an object lesson in archetype vs stereotype, the dip back into the nineteenth century performed by these two radically different companies could scarcely be bettered as an example.

Potential dance audiences tend to be gun-shy, skittering at unfamiliar titles or mixed bills. The old favourites – Swan Lake, Giselle – still attract the most people, to the despair of artistic directors and devotees alike. So drawing on titles familiar from other contexts is a way of making audiences feel safe when booking tickets, while allowing creativity to flourish.

With Just ten dancers, the Mark Bruce Company’s production of Dracula packs a punch far beyond its weight. Bruce’s choreography more generally could perhaps be called “psycho-dance”, exploring as it does the emotion of movement and the movement of emotion. Previously Bruce has sometimes seemed undisciplined, his work running off at tangents, but adapting Bram Stoker’s bitty, epistolary novel has allowed him to focus this tendency into a virtue.

He has chosen his collaborators wisely: Phil Eddolls’s overwrought irony of a set wittily gestures towards period without any attempt at authenticity; Guy Hoare’s almost velvet lighting is a character in its own right; and Pickled Image’s creepily effective masks provide some of the show’s highlights – the wolves baying around Dracula in the opening will long linger in my mind.

At the production’s core is the reliably wonderful Jonathan Goddard. Long a stellar dancer, he has also grown in psychological intensity with every new role. His long, lugubrious face is tailor-made for the Transylvanian, allowing him to be at once both shamelessly predatory and tormented by his animal desires.

It is this double nature that lifts Dracula above stereotype and into archetype. Stoker created an Other who walks among us, the outwardly respectable frock-coated gent who will rip out a heart and eat it as casually as he hails a cab.

In Bruce’s grey-on-black world, it is, in particular, sexual doubleness that fascinates and lures, as Kristin McGuire’s limpid Lucy Westenra trades the tame adoration of her suitors (presented in 1930s music-hall style) for Dracula’s bloody dance of death. Not for Bruce the camp accretions of a century of adaptations. This Dracula brings fresh blood to slavering audiences.

Meanwhile, the Royal Ballet too has returned to the nineteenth century to look for a crowd-pleaser. The decision to mount a new production of Don Quixote is at first surprising.

In the past twenty years they have staged two failed productions of what is ostensibly Petipa’s classic of 1869 (which has in reality only survived in fragments, through a heavily revised 1900 staging by Alexander Gorsky).

However Carlos Acosta, the Royal’s star of many years, cut his teeth on Don Quixote in his native Cuba, and it has been his calling card when guesting elsewhere, so it is likely that his was the guiding desire here when deciding what to stage for his first production at the Royal.

The ballet itself – a demented mash-up of Imperial Russian choreography, Austro-Hungarian oompah-fest score, and late nineteenth-century ethnic caricatures – is pure stereotype, not archetype, and as such will never fit neatly with the British passion for theatrical realism. This is surprisingly deep-rooted in the classical dance world, and British dancers can’t ever quite bring themselves to click their castanets, shout olé (and Acosta has his dancers really shouting) or even perform the famous rocking-horse jetés (back leg snapping up to the head) without adding a raised eyebrow to signal ironic distance from the piece’s sheer silliness.

The plot focuses on a tiny episode from Cervantes’ novel, about a barber and his love, while the Don and Sancho Panza merely wander through. Acosta handles the absence of motivation as well as possible, and indeed the further he gets from the traditional staging, the more assured he is. Act I, which is almost all plot set-up, only intermittently and very unevenly interrupted by dance, is a long haul, whereas in the second act, in the gypsy encampment, Acosta’s interpolations, such as the flamenco jam session, are charming.

Here he also gives Basilio (Acosta) and Kitri (Marianela Nuñez) some character development, which they clearly relish. Nuñez has long been cast as a soubrette, which is mystifying: she is, true, both small and neat, with a great bouncy jeté, all aspects of value in soubrette roles. But she is also a dancer of formidable attack and intelligence, neither of which have much place in a stamp-and-pout part. “Feisty” is a word applied usually to women – women who speak their minds are “feisty”, whereas men who speak their minds are just men. Nuñez is indeed “feisty”, in that her dancing says straightforwardly what she thinks, with no beating around the bush. Would that such straightforwardness no longer had to be wrapped up in a veneer of cuteness for it to be considered acceptable.

Other elements of the evening are similarly tame. The West End designer (Spamalot, Shrek) Tim Hatley’s first act has a muted pastel palette. The day-glo sunset of the gypsy encampment and the surreal giant flowers of the vision scene see him at his most effective, but his dance inexperience shows in the frantically bustling houses and windmills. Dance doesn’t need moving scenery; dance is moving scenery.

The Mark Bruce Company knows this in its bones. It may be that having only a tiny fraction of the resources of the Opera House forces creators like Bruce to imaginative heights they would not otherwise reach. Two scenes – Jonathan Harker (Christopher Tandy) in the Transylvanian tavern, and Dracula’s final chase, surrounded by wolves – show how skilled Bruce is at handling larger groups of dancers. One longs to see what this company could do with a quarter of the resources spent on Don Quixote – or maybe just the budget for the castanets.

Myth and Legend: Fairy-tales and dance

Akram Khan Company: iTMOi

Royal Ballet: Hansel and Gretel

Royal Ballet: Raven Girl, Symphony in C

Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

The hundredth anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring may, for dance-goers, have inspired a certain dread. The rhythmic power of Stravinsky’s music is so compelling that, while choreographers long to work with it, the results are rarely entirely successful.

The standard English translation of Stravinsky’s title loses the essential word ‘sacrifice’ whch in French shares a root with sacre’, but this is what powers the music: the cycle of birth and death through ritual violence and ritual belief. Akram Khan has chosen to turn to these ideas for iTMOi (an off-putting abbreviation for ‘In the Mind of Igor’), instead of confronting the music directly, an interesting and original decision. Instead, Khan has worked with regular collaborator Nitin Sawhney, as well as more the orchestrally inclined Jocelyn Pook and the minimalist textures of Ben Frost, to produce a 65-minute (double the length of Rite) tour of a mysterious world where death is ever-present.

The piece opens with a roar, literally, followed by a tolling bell. The shadows reveal a shaman or preacher (T. J. Lowe) pacing and ranting. Only snatches are audible – ‘and the Lord said’, ‘blood oath’, ‘Abraham’ ‘only son’ and, resonantly, ‘sacrifice’. Gradually the inhabitants of this world of dreams gather around a woman in a white hooped skirt, a bride-figure with one breast bared and scarified. In the folk-inflected dances that follow, rather than the bright tones of Mark Morris’ folk-movement (although there are interesting and unexpected resonances between these two artists), the violence of a connection to the earth is stamped out.

When one of the dancers (Hannes Langolf) steps out of the rhythm, seeming to question its purpose, he becomes a pariah, even as a second dancer (Ching-Ying Chien) is daubed with white chalk, chosen. The final segment suggests that the questioner, flayed and imprisoned, is, indeed, the self-chosen. But there are no certainties. The work, like Stravinsky’s own, draws strength from its jagged ensemble pieces. That it has no answers, nor any definitive interpretation, is its power.

One of the functions of fairy-tales is to make our world comprehensible, and they do so by highlighting the strangeness of theirs. The minutiae of those worlds do not matter. Why Odette in Swan Lake is a swan, or the Immortal Kotschei in The Firebird keeps his soul in an egg are, in worlds that have been created, irrelevant.

At the Royal Opera House, both Wayne McGregor (on the main stage) and Liam Scarlett (in the smaller Linbury) have attempted to create fairy-tale worlds, Scarlett with a traditional story, McGregor with a new one.

Scarlett’s Hansel and Gretel has been updated to 1950s suburbia, and Jon Bausor’s designs, both derelict house and horror-filled basement-dungeon, are, in isolation, splendid. As stage-sets, however, they are simply inept, their traverse structure producing both cramped dance-space for the performers and blocked sight-lines for the audience. And while Scarlett, in his previous narrative work, Sweet Violets, tried to cram in too much detail, here he has gone in the opposite direction and too little drama is spread thinly over an entire evening.

One single, and terrifying, moment, however, reminds us what a Scarlett is. The children return home and find their parents gone. The boy picks up a beer, the girl tries on her stepmother’s dress: in a single gesture they prepare to hand down misery through the generations.

Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl, based on a novella in words and aquatints by Audrey Niffenegger, suffers from a similar thinness. Niffenegger’s book, at less than 80 pages, attempts to tell the story of two generations – of a postman who falls in love with a raven; and of their child, the Raven Girl, human-shaped but raven-voiced, who longs to fly.

Niffenegger’s tale is frustratingly both too detailed and too vague. The postman finds his raven-bride when he delivers a mysterious letter. The story of the letter takes up 5 per cent of the book, but once the characters are where the author needs him, she merrily abandons the device. We are told about the handwriting of this mysterious letter, but the hero-prince is given no such introduction: he appears only on the penultimate page.

Niffenegger, and McGregor, strive to create archetypes, fairy-tales’ formula for embodying emotions and fears we are unable to acknowledge, but they merely produce stock characters. An archetypal prince represents bravery, or loyalty, or a quest; a generic prince wears a crown. In both book and ballet, we know the Raven Prince is a prince because, well, because that’s what he’s called. He fills the prince-shaped hole in the story.

McGregor has not yet learnt to tell a story through dance, and onstage the narrative and dance are sequential, rather than simultaneous, with the mime sections too basic to carry the complexities of the story. In the novella the boy (onstage Paul Kay) in love with the Raven Girl (Sarah Lamb) merely vanishes; on stage, he returns to the land of the ravens, sliding into an opening in the cliff. When the never-before-mentioned Raven Prince (Eric Underwood) shows up for the last five minutes of the ballet, we wonder if he is the boy grown up? And if not, who is he?

The dazzling designs by Vicki Mortimer and the film projections by Ravi Deepres rescue the evening. Yet even there, the mechanics trip up the novice storyteller. The point of the tale, insofar as it has a point, is the longing of the Raven Girl for flight. Instead of magic, her wings are bestowed on her by a Wozzeck-like doctor (Thiago Soares) in a grisly surgical episode. But after their beauty is displayed (and they are very beautiful – credit to Max Humphries and Verity Sadler), logistics demand that they vanish: dancers can’t perform burdened by three-foot wings.

The cumulative effect brings home their creators’ failure to understand the nature of fairy-tales. If Swan Lake is not about honour and loyalty, then it becomes a ballet about sex with birds. Raven Girl, in its inability to transcend reality, ends up being no more than that.

The Royal Ballet has specialized in narrative dance for much of its existence. To have one choreographer who does not understand the basics of story-telling is a misfortune. As Oscar Wilde never said, to have two, and fail to provide any form of assistance, such as a dramaturg, looks very like carelessness.

Royal Ballet: Mayerling

My great-grandmother used to say, “In the fall, leaves fall,” meaning that as the weather gets colder, people die. The Royal Ballet has had leaves falling all year, and in the height of the (ha!) summer one of the most tenacious, and most beautiful, finally fluttered down. Leanne Benjamin, a principal since 1993, retired in the role of her choosing, Kenneth MacMillan’s Mary Vetsera, a crazed, sexed-up nymphet with a death-wish.

Benjamin has had a longer career than most. She is, unbelievably, 49, although you would probably have to see the picture in her attic to prove it, given that she still looks young enough to play “young” Mary, not something dancers half her age can always do. And, as a heartening lesson to many struggling dancers, it took time for her to come into her own.

I remember her blazing, if unnuanced, graduating performance. But then it almost seemed as if no one really knew what to do with this very young dancer, so physically able, but with a persona mature beyond her years. She went to Sadler’s Wells and Festival Ballet, then Deutsche Oper Ballet, where MacMillan noted her. But her travails were not over. She returned to London and the Royal, but MacMillan died before he could use her as she needed to be used, and for a long time she seemed not to fit anyone’s preconceptions of what a dancer should look and think like.

Most would have tamed themselves, re-tuned themselves to meet expectations. Benjamin ploughed her own furrow, and her determination finally made others realize that she was what a dancer like her should look and think like. Her classical centre was always pure – and then she pushed it, extended it, turned it into the high baroque.

So to Mayerling. Benjamin’s Rudolf was Carlos Acosta, turning in a fine, brutal, thuggish performance. His Rudolf has no hope from the beginning, and he pushes his women around as he is pushed around politically and emotionally by his parents and the court. Man hands on misery to man. Neither Benjamin norZenaida Yanowsky, as Rudolf’s mother, the Empress Elisabeth, should have been physically suited to Acosta – Benjamin seemingly too slight, Yanowsky too tall. And yet their scenes with him became a vortex down which Rudolf’s sanity rushed.

The bedroom scene with his mother was the finest I have ever seen, Yanowsky’s severe beauty embodying Elisabeth’s emotional constipation and frigid desire. The two produced a masterclass of how to convey complex mental states through gestures, paced, both big and small. Benjamin’s Mary meanwhile ran through the ballet like quicksilver, darting, restless, never entirely clear what it was she wanted until she and Rudolf found it in death, the only non-negotiable, stable element of the psychodrama that was imperial Vienna.

The Royal at the moment seems to have very few leaves left on the senior branches of its tree. Let’s hope better things come shortly, for Benjamin will be missed. Brian Maloney, too, retired last night, and his capable charm was warmly displayed as Bratfisch. Emma Maguire made the very most, and then some, of Princess Louise in the first act.

This run of Mayerling now complete, it would be nice if, before its next outing, the management dealt with some recurring problems. The back-projection for the funeral scene is so elderly it appears that Mary’s funeral takes place in a meteor shower, not the rain. Mitzi Caspar has become a chronically undercast role, with minor soloists dancing what MacMillan allocated as a principal role, deadening her scene. And, finally, as a historian, may I make a plea for the education of all future Princess Stephanies. A 19th-century woman in a tavern/bordello would not be angry, she would be terrified, as the early Stephanies knew.

The Metamorphosis, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.” In one of the most famous opening lines in literature, Franz Kafka gives birth to a startling hallucinogenic premise. And Arthur Pita’s very clever dance drama produces something of a similar jolt in its precision and strangeness.

Simon Daw’s sparely elegant set presents the two halves of the Samsa household – on one side Gregor’s clinical white bedroom, looking like the “before” picture in a German Expressionist film of an insane asylum; on the other, the Samsas’ kitchen, an American 1950s white-on-white Happy Housewife extravaganza of clean lines, well-designed china and Waring blenders.

Mrs Samsa (the beautifully febrile Nina Goldman) and her ineffectual, out-of-work husband (a sympathetically louche Neil Reynolds) go through their daily routine: Gregor sets off for work, Grete, his sister, goes to school and hopes to become a dancer, they come home, eat supper, go to bed and begin again. Pita’s efficient and slick repetition of the departure, three times in a row, gives us Kafka’s sense of powerless futility, while Guy Hoare’s evocative lighting shades reality into phantasmagoria.

Dance is not particularly good at narrative, but it is wonderful at metaphor, and so Kafka’s extended fantasia of insectified life develops fluidly. The entire evening is predicated on the bizarre physical skills of Royal Ballet dancer Edward Watson, and his hyper-extended limbs, his extraordinarily flexible back and his virtually prehensile toes (which seem to have many more joints than most people’s) allow him to bend and twist into a series of contortions that display on his body Gregor’s alienation of mind.

The insect seeps a black oil, which soon smears itself across the floor and walls, extended further by the incursion of a dream sequence involving three invading oiled black figures who besmirch Gregor further. The stains soon spread across the dividing line that separates Gregor’s room from the rest of the household, a symbol of the spreading poison of a vermin-infested house.

Grete (splendidly naively danced by Laura Day) is initially sympathetic to her much-loved brother, bringing him rotting food to eat and attempting helplessly to reach through his new carapace. While dance specializes in expressing relationships, family interaction has rarely been treated apart from the odd unpleasant fairytale stepmother, or the sympathetic or overbearing father. Gregor’s two pas de deux, with his sister and his fainting, panicking mother, are particularly touching, through his contorted body expressing straightforward expressions of gentle love and anxiety.

I do, however, have one major reservation. The lodgers that the family are forced to take in once Gregor’s salary is no longer forthcoming are, in Kafka’s story, “bearded”. They are not, however, in any other way marked out as any ethnicity or religion. In Pita’s rendition, they are very obviously orthodox Jews (klezmer music plays, in case we miss the point). Is there any particular reason for bringing in this sort of heavy stereotyping? Given Kafka’s own background, mistakenly referenced by Pita as Czech-language, despite Kafka’s origins as a German-speaking Jewish writer in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the fate of his family – two of his sisters died in the Łódź ghetto, the third in Auschwitz – I found myself deeply offended.

Royal Ballet, winter season 2012/13

The great dance critic Richard Buckle once famously reviewed a winter season by remarking that each Christmas brings us “one Nutcracker closer to death”, and certainly it is possible to note the passing of the years by watching the Swans migrate, then the Firebirds.

Kevin O’Hare has now seen his first full season as company director at the Royal Ballet, and, although much of the repertoire was, of necessity, planned before he took over the reins, it was possible to begin to discern the outlines of his aspirations, perhaps most fully as the season reached its final stages.

The highlight was 24 Preludes, a new ballet by Alexei Ratmansky, the man currently saddled with the title “Saviour of Classical Dance”. He may or may not be, but he is certainly a choreographer of greatness, and in this, his first work for the Royal Ballet (indeed, his first work in Britain), he has made a piece that will surely become a company staple. Ratmansky usually works intensively with selected companies, his knowledge of company style and the strengths of individual dancers informing each new piece. Here he lacked that in-depth knowledge, and his readings of his eight performers – Leanne Benjamin, Alina Cojocaru, Sarah Lamb and Zenaida Yanowsky, Valeri Hristov, Steven McRae, Edward Watson and Rupert Pennefather – sometimes seems superficial, concentrating on their most obvious qualities – Cojocaru’s quicksilver brightness, Watson’s extreme extensions, Pennefather’s rather stolid mien – instead of mining for something deeper.

Yet within these parameters, Ratmansky has nevertheless created a true dance world, investing a series of social meetings and turnings away into a fully formed emotional landscape.

The formality of structure suggests a Chekhovian grouping, reflected in the minimalist rippled background (beautifully lit by Neil Austin, and presumably also designed by him, although that remains uncredited), which transforms itself from stormy sky to shimmering aquaeous surface to Ilya Repin-like greenery.

By turns gentle, tumultuous and charming, Ratmansky’s choreographic invention never fails, moving from an opening section of turns and sighing falls, through a pas de trois where the tall Zenaida Yanowsky does the lifting of the smaller Steven McRae. The piece is about performance, as much as it is performance, with several tongue-in-cheek reminders that Chopin’s Preludes have a dance heritage: Les Sylphides is gestured at, and when the four men return at the end, searching for their women, they arrive in formation like the Wilis in Giselle, hunting their prey. More obviously the linked-dance format refers back to Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, and Ratmansky’s own Russian Seasons. That latter drama of elemental life and renewal is here replicated more decorously, in a somewhat muted manner – an “English Seasons”, perhaps.

The piece is certainly not perfect. Ratmansky has lumbered himself with Jean Françaix’s orchestration of the Preludes Op 28, which is not only uninspiring, but the complete set is theatrically too long. The entries and exits, forcibly tied to the demands of the Preludes, thus become an important motif – 24 Preludes, that’s forty-six entrances and exits in forty-one minutes. Even with a choreographer as fecund as Ratmansky, it risks becoming slightly risible.

Despite these reservations, it may very well be that this is the best work the Royal has commissioned since the death of Kenneth MacMillan. There have been works taken into the repertory in this time that are its equal, but none that has been commissioned by the company. For this alone, O’Hare’s debut season is worthy of praise.

Some of the other programmes are less sure-footed. A programme dedicated to the work of the Royal’s founder-choreographer, Frederick Ashton, marked the quarter-century since his death. But what a puzzling programme it was, made up of what must, with the best will in the world, be called odds and ends. In 1920, Diaghilev rejected Ravel’s La Valse as being entirely unsuitable for dance. Choreographers have since taken that as a challenge: Nijinska used the music in the 1920s, and Ashton and Balanchine set themselves the task in the 1950s. Both the latter, it must be said, prove Diaghilev’s shrewdness: Ravel’s flickering score, shifting between heartbeat-regular rhythms underneath and ghostly, evanescent skeins of sound on the surface, allows no purchase for dancing. At the time, Ashton turned in a dutiful gala piece, but its continued appearance over half a century later is a mystery.

In fact, all of O’Hare’s choices for this memorial programme are pièces d’occasion: the “Meditation” from Thaïs and “white” Monotones are also gala confections, Voices of Spring is an insert pas de deux for a production of Die Fledermaus, and Marguerite et Armand a celebrity vehicle for Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.

Monotones is, simply, a masterpiece. Satie’s music obviously captivated Ashton, and after the white section to Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies, he created a “green” section to the first Gnossienne as a prelude. Performed by Emma Maguire, Akane Takada and Dawid Trzensimiech, Marianela Nuñez, Federico Bonelli and Edward Watson, both the bouncier green and the more linear white were danced with the detached, eerie gravitas that this otherworldly, almost lunar, piece demands.

The remaining works on the programme, however, are, on a sliding scale, anything from charming gala lollipops (Voices of Spring, with Yuhui Choe and the young Alexander Campbell making enjoyable, if not profound, debuts) to chemical candy floss (“Meditation” from Thaïs) right down to unadulterated saccharine (Marguerite et Armand). Why a choreographer who produced more than six dozen works over six decades should have his career represented by a few pieces of ephemera in a memorial programme is barely comprehensible.

That Marguerite et Armand was revived as a star vehicle, is clear. Tamara Rojo, longtime principal, gave her final performances in one of Fonteyn’s last roles, the dying Dame aux Camélias, while the young Nureyev’s role was taken by Sergei Polunin. He is Ukrainian, not Russian, but otherwise the offstage parallels hold: Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union to the Royal, while Polunin fled in the opposite direction, abandoning the Royal mid-rehearsal one day, to turn up later in Moscow’s Stanislavsky Music Theatre. O’Hare has lured him back for a few guest appearances, one assumes as an overture to finding him a more permanent place as a principal guest artist, and this can only be commended: the Royal is certainly poorer for his absence.

If Rojo was pleased to bow out in this role, and Polunin found in the Nureyev comparisons a kindly welcome, well and good. But the ballet, as a ballet, is a bore. With dated designs by Cecil Beaton (the set an etiolated sub-Giacometti cage, the costumes either a series of camp embarrassments for the soloists, or a diva-ish three-costume-changes-in-thirty-three-minutes for the lead), the choreography would have to be stellar to survive, and it simply isn’t. The ageing Fonteyn was by then understandably limited, and while Rojo’s powerful sense of drama carries her audience with her, she has, in reality, little to do apart from burning looks, a few bourrées and a lot of falling to her knees. Polunin’s Armand is required to make several of the dashing runs (one complete with cape fluttering dramatically behind) so beloved of Nureyev – I half-expected him to cry “Ta-da!” as he appeared – but Ashton’s choreographic invention for him too seems curiously limited.

Another evening, another memorial to past Royal choreographers, this time an evening of works by MacMillan, twenty years after his early death. Here old favourites and a revived curiosity sit more neatly together. Concerto, an early piece to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2, is impossible not to love with its sprightly outer movements flanking a profound central meditation on the nature of classicism. Las Hermanas, an adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba, could not be more different: a distillation of how fear and jealousy corrode and destroy. Only MacMillan could have revealed without words the icy heart of Lorca’s sexual snakepit.

Created two years later, but far more dated is John Cranko’s Onegin, which has in the past few years become a repertory staple. The work is mundane, but with juicy parts for four principals, it endures. The curious thing about it (particularly performed, as it was this season, in turn with the Royal Opera’s staging of the opera on which it is based) is how at odds the ballet is with both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky. Their Onegin is a clever, sensitive man stifled by a society that values neither of these things; Cranko’s Onegin (particularly as played by Stuttgart’s Jason Reilly, stepping in for an injured Johan Kobborg) is a crass boor. He does not reject the love-struck Tatiana, as in the poem, for sensible reasons, and with humanity; no, here he tears her letter into pieces in front of her eyes and throws them at her, pantomime-villain-style. The only redemption from such vulgarity (and it comes as a grace note in a strident evening) is that Cranko allows the possibility of married love. His Gremin and Tatiana genuinely find happiness together. Her renunciation of Onegin, therefore, is less devastating than in Pushkin, not renouncing happiness, but rather accepting that she has found it, just not where she had expected. Alina Cojocaru makes much of this gentle happiness, ably helped by Bennet Gartside as Gremin, now one of the company’s most accomplished character actors, and they bring an evening of melodramatic moustache-twiddling to a touching, quiet close.

Despite these choreographic dinosaurs, in other ways O’Hare seems determined to expand the repertoire across the classical spectrum, which is extremely satisfying. Several pieces make welcome returns: Apollo, in its original, uncut version, had performances of just-tamed ferocity (from Carlos Acosta) or childlike wonder (Federico Bonelli). One of Balanchine’s greatest works, Apollo‘s Olympian distance appears to have put off previous directors, but O’Hare has sensibly scheduled this work from 1928 as the forerunner to contemporary classical dance, opening the programme for Ratmansky’s 24 Preludes and Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum (to Britten’s terrifying Sinfonia da Requiem, which rather defeated him). Another neatly planned evening was one that mixed Jerome Robbins’s In the Night, long absent, with the perennial crowd-pleaser The Firebird and (another inexplicable absence) Raymonda, Act III, a dazzling confection of Glazunov’s oom-pah-ing orchestrations and Petipa’s (aided by Nureyev) Oriental/Russian scenario, all wrapped up by the silver-white splendour of Barry Kay’s Austro-Hungaro-Byzantine romp of a set. (The only one I know routinely greeted by a round of applause when the curtain rises.) Dance companies can live neither by Swan Lakes nor by new choreography alone. O’Hare has confidently displayed an ability to construct the harder-to-promote mixed bills that are the core of any repertory, and with this promising augury, we watch, hopefully, as the Swans return once more to their breeding grounds.